Christopher Soden’s Top 10 for 2016

I am thrilled and exhilarated to confirm the profuse choices of compelling, intriguing, visionary theatre in the DFW Metroplex. The following shows, in no particular order, represent the plays that stirred me to my very bones. In parentheses you will find noteworthy plays that also appeared at that company. Many Thanks to John Garcia, and The Column for running this first.

1. Dallas Theatre Centre: Gloria

Gloria, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a drama concerning the death of compassion in American culture, and how we talk each other out of caring. It is actually quite subtle, considering the shocking act of violence that ends the first act. Afterwards, my friend suggested that there will always be schmucks, which is certainly true. But I believe that Jacobs-Jenkins has hit upon a current, pervasive attitude (perhaps the seeds were planted during the “Me-Decade”) that it’s easier to dismiss the deeply troubled than reach out to them. In the second act Kendra remarks that all the attention being heaped on Gloria is perversely rewarding her for terrible behavior. This may be so, but just as in the case of Columbine and the catastrophes that followed, red flags were ignored before the tipping point. Why not take refuge in cliques and label those in pain as “freaks”?

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is rather sly and Dallas Theater Centers production of Gloria laden with thematic rhyming. Several characters swoon over her intensely emotional songs when a young, intoxicating siren dies, but have no use for the messy side of their own humanity. What we might normally ascribe to double or triple-casting, gradually reveals the suggestion that our fate is wished upon us, rather than due to lack of character. Sound Designer John Flores and Scenic Designer Dahlia Al-Habieli have erected pristine, secular temples of civilization, complete with disembodied choral fanfare, and persistent, salient red accents. In my numerous years of theatre-going I have to say, Gloria is one of the most powerful plays I have ever seen. We’re already 17 years into the 21st Century, but still believe the affectation of spiritual enlightenment is good enough. (Constellations)

2. Kitchen Dog Theater: Feathers and Teeth

Reflecting upon Kitchen Dog’s current black comedy, Charise Castro Smith’s Feathers and Teeth, I was struck by the subtlety of the title. In nature, you never see both in the same creature. If it has teeth it doesn’t have feathers. If it has feathers it doesn’t have teeth. But the villain of Feathers and Teeth does. Like Mack the Knife, she’s very good at hiding her grisly side. Set in 1978, and recalling the trashy sci-fi of the 60’s, Feathers and Teeth mixes a strange and unlikely blend of genres: dark satire, absurdism, horror and drama. And (this is the truly bizarre part) they blend perfectly, like a collage, or a quadriptych. When we see Arthur jumping Carol’s bones on the kitchen table it’s ridiculous, funny and sad, all at once.

I must give all kinds of mad props to Charise Castro Smith, Director Lee Trull, and cast members: Matt Lyle, Morgan Laure’, Dakota Ratliff and Parker Gray. This is difficult material to pull off. Beyond evincing a successful show, there’s something about this play that transcends narrative on its face. It stays in your memory, though it’s not easy to understand why. Smith has laced this piece with vivid, indirect metaphor. Like other intoxicating shows, it rewards closer inspection. Kitchen Dog has a gift for staging plays that sink into your skin. As it were. Feathers and Teeth is subversive, and tender in odd ways. It takes a deranged sense of irony to stage this during the holidays, but it’s something you shouldn’t miss. If you love visionary, risky theatre. (I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, Thrush and Woodpecker, A Stain Upon the Silence)

3. Bishop Arts Theater: Ruined

Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, is a poignant, intelligent, drama that explores the diminishment and degradation of women in the midst of a patriarchy. Set in a Mama Nadi’s brothel, in a small mining town in the Republic of Congo, Ruined opens when Christian (the Poet) sells a couple of girls to Mama Nadi, one of them his niece, Sophie. The other girl, Salima, has run away from her husband. Sophie is “ruined” which (as you might have guessed) means she has lost her virginity. So she is spared the indignity of selling her body, and Mama Nadi finds other things for her to do. Mama Nadi is not without her kindnesses, but she is a business woman, and a survivor. As the story is revealed we see how she and her girls are forced to subsist in the midst of political upheaval and civil war. But mostly they are subject to the whims of the men. Miners and soldiers.

Lynn Nottage has crafted a subtle, original, savvy exploration of what it means to get by when you are immersed in a sense of perpetual danger. For all the serious rhetoric of soldiers and commanders, we get the distinct impression that their pursuits are vapid and amount to one pissing contest after another. That they subjugate women because it gives them the opportunity play despot. [How appropriate in light of the current presidential race.] Women must take these idiots seriously because they have no choice. There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a fool with power. When Sophie spits on one of their boots, you want to cheer, but you can’t because you’re terrified for her. Like the best playwrights Nottage doesn’t tell us what to believe, she demonstrates the ugly disgraces prevailing in the world, and lets us decide for ourselves. Ruined is splendid, life-changing theatre.

4. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas: Dancing at Lughnasa

I’ve never cared for terms like “bittersweet” or “dramedy” as they obsess with labels, when literature resists such facile categories. Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is a quietly electrifying, intensely moving memory piece (in some ways like The Glass Menagerie) in which Michael, illegitimate son of Christie Mundy, remembers when his family was in the usual upheaval, just before everything went completely sideways. Michael is the narrator, and in retrospect realizes that for all the brouhaha, the five Mundy sisters had each other, Michael, and the daft Uncle Jack, a missionary priest back from Africa.

So much genius in Friel’s play. Dancing at Lughnasa mocks easy answers to the quandaries that plague the Mundy Sisters, while making us ache for them. Because we hate to see these vigorous, vibrant women hurting. Friel never leads us by the nose, he’s too subtle for that. But the celebratory nature beneath the travails and mischief, that we see so gloriously expressed in the title event (if only in the Mundy kitchen) leaks and brims and gets beneath our skin. The friction between sober devotion and pagan life-affirmation fuels this exquisitely realized, truly miraculous story of familial grace. Please understand. After years of seeing theatre, I know how difficult it is to capture authentic, overwhelming emotion in a way that actually reaches the audience. And stays with them. Directors Miki Bone and Frank Latson, and this inspired, precise, utterly involved cast have managed to do just that. Tears and mirth and implacable humanity.( As We Lie Still)

5. Stage West: Bootycandy

Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, currently playing at Stage West in Fort Worth, is fierce, dark, satire. Like David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, it has very grim undercurrents, disguised as comedy of manners. Making the trek to cowtown exhausts me, but I wince to think I might have missed one of the most powerful, chilling, sardonic shows I have ever experienced, period. It lulls you with the quaint humor of queer sexuality as it’s perceived in Afro-American culture. Yes (just as in white culture) much of the contempt our hero, Sutter, is exposed to, comes from ignorance. And on its face it’s funny. But the longer and harder and closer you look, the more poisonous it feels. As if Sutter, cool, genuine, sophisticated, is gradually being slipped strychnine. O’Hara satiates us with the candy of hilarity, while delivering his rabbit punches with stealth.

At first Sutter’s calm, even temperament feels natural, almost a relief in the context of hysteria that engulfs him. Then you begin to wonder if he’s shut down. At the center of Bootycandy is an atrocity that’s hinted at, then only revealed in subplot involving a group of black playwrights. The result is ambiguity: has Sutter actually done these things, or deep in the midst of his shadows, only reflect on them? In the narrative we are given, can we infer that Sutter was molested as a boy, degraded by other white men he’s slept with? We can only speculate. Though it’s safe to conclude that we are carefully given certain details for a reason, and Sutter’s “pathology” did not grow in a vacuum. Also safe, I think, to wonder if the adults responsible for him (with the exception of Grandma) have ultimately failed him. O’Hara could have titled this play: Elegy for Sutter’s Soul.

6. L.I.P. Service: Trainspotting

Rarely have I seen a show with such bonejolting, abyss swimming, heart shredding velocity as Trainspotting at the The Rudy Seppy Studio in Irving. Adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel by Harry Gibson, it reveals the lives of Mark Renton, et al: disaffected Scottish heroin addicts who kill the pain of despair and seething anger with mindless promiscuity and drug abuse. If not teenagers, they are not much older. This is thwarted eruption and anarchy with maybe the slightest whisper of irony or relief. Sex undercut by the shame of dirty bedsheets is metaphor for Trainspotting: kids who fuck with fierce indifference but worry about ass stains. Mark lives by impulse, but still seems to be the only one amongst his friends (Tommy, Simon, Lizzie, Allison, Franco, and “Mother Superior” a drag nun) not completely numb to their dwindling conscience. When Tommy begs Mark to help him try smack, he really tries to stop him, but Tommy, it seems, is bent on urgent ruin.

Trainspotting has the power of the undiluted, the unbuffered, the authentic. The characters are so defiant in their grubby, sardonic soullessness, we can’t help but respect them. They never ask for our pity, or even sympathy, that ship sailed long before the lights went down. This astonishing cast (Dustin Simington, Jason Robert Villareal, Conner Wedgeworth, Caleb J. Pieterse, Lauren Mishoe, Jad Brennon Saxton, Erica Larsen, R. Andrew Aguilar, JL Sunshine, Leslie Boren, Steve Cave) is utterly fearless and submerged in this anatomy of a clusterfuck/trainwreck. They wield dialogue like rusty scalpels. They french kiss you with strychnine. They shoot horse like they are making love to seraphim. Trainspotting is a profoundly unsettling mix of contempt, damage and aching, disconsolate loss. When they deliver a snarling, ferocious finale of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, you can just feel the waves of blind rage throbbing. Trainspotting is glorious, uncompromising, remarkable theatre. (The Goat Play or Who is Sylvia?)

7. Second Thought Theater: A Kid Like Jake

Alex and Greg have a four-year-old son named Jake. Alex wants to get Jake into an erudite school, so we find her nervously preparing his resume: writing an essay, answering questionnaires, consulting books to improve his chances. Judy is the principal of the kindergarten that Jake currently attends. She and Alex are close friends and this has several advantages. Judy knows and loves Jake, Alex and Greg, so she can coach Alex as she applies Jake to prestigious schools. During a strategy session she essentially recommends that Alex mention Jake’s (for lack of a better term) gender-fluid worldview. This sets a series of incidents in motion.

Alex and Greg are well beyond progressive. They do not mind when Jake likes to dress as a princess, say, like Cinderella. They don’t have meltdowns when Jake identifies with female characters. Alex is a bit leery about following Judy’s advice, but she’s been assured that the current trend towards diversity will work in her favor. It’s only when Jakes wishes to go trick-or-treating in female persona that the situation begins to deteriorate. Greg and Alex do not shame him, but it’s a challenging ordeal. Suddenly Jake is acting out, defiant to authority figures, showing signs of personal crisis.

Playwright Daniel Pearle has created a subtle, sharp, even fanciful at times, exploration of the intense and pervasive impact of gender, and how best to love those dearest to us. Pearle strips away layers from Alex and Greg and their marriage, and the buried, tumultuous issues left unacknowledged. A Kid Like Jake considers how certain events are shaped by the attitudes brought to them. It examines the crucible of wrestling with the expectations and constraints of those around us. Pearle takes a loaded topic (laden with pain) and handles it with grace and precision. (The Great God Pan)

8. Theatre Three: The Novelist

Theresa Rebeck’s The Novelist is a beguiling and (not unexpectedly?) fairly literary drama. Metaphor overlaps with metaphor, delicate butterflies in shadow boxes, Frank, one son who cannot finish sentences, yet brings statues pregnant with implication, Ethan, the other, cannot tell he is turning into his father. If anything Rebeck spells the subtext out a bit too clearly, but The Novelist is certainly absorbing and wise without ever turning cynical. At least not towards anyone who doesn’t warrant it.

Perhaps it’s no different in other parts of the world, but many Americans heap adulation upon anyone who is very, very successful. Paul, the title character, while not exactly the vox populi, has been vetted by the critics. Like Picasso, Hitchcock and Faulkner he is indulged in his despicable behavior, perhaps because the rest believe he inhabits the realm of immortals. Like Mount Olympus? Paul is not just a cranky, insufferable curmudgeon, he’s a schmuck that enjoys being a schmuck. When Sophie, his new assistant, confronts him on his toxic behavior, the rest of the family rushes to his defense. Though, thankfully, without admonishing Sophie.

If this weren’t bad enough, the evidence that he’s plagiarizing the work of female consorts (including his wife) steadily mounts. (Remember the Jerzy Konsinski controversy?) He comes on to Sophie without being a complete oaf, but it’s obvious he’s so used to getting what he wants from the awestruck and self-effacing, that chutzpah just comes to him naturally. When Sophie breaks the spell at the same time Laurie returns to New York without Ethan, Rebeck’s thematic rhyming becomes even clearer, and the irony that Ethan has unwittingly accepted the torch from his father.

The most salient epiphany of The Novelist is the sad revelation that artists who create the most spiritually compelling work are often not remotely admirable. The risk of this content is lapsing into familial melodrama. Rebeck mostly carries this off, though it’s a perilous endeavor, dancing all around an issue without reaching the audience’s conclusions for them. I would be remiss however, if I didn’t say that The Novelist has much beauty, incision and humanity to recommend it, not the least of which comes from the meticulous cast. (Light Up the Sky)

9. Uptown Players: Angels in America (Part One)

Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, a two-part series (both parts standing as independent pieces) is puzzling yet satisfying, epic yet personal, enigmatic, yet funny and cogent. Key characters are Mormon, yet it’s not immediately apparent why the Mormon church is vital to content. When Angels premiered they weren’t the only church condemning same-gender sexuality, but somehow the (shall we say?) more fanciful details of their theology seems consistent with the deadpan strangeness of the tone. The characters are not heroic but they seem swept up in the forces of history or zeitgeist or perhaps something greater? The one character who seems aware of his place in the politics and cultural evolution of America is Roy Cohn, a powerful, intelligent, reprehensible attorney who believes in contextual morality.

When Angels opened transgender cast doubling was an original way to add depth and complexity to a story. The idea that the inexplicable, mysterious gender we are is the one we just happened to wind up with. In 2016, maybe not so much. Kushner’s cunning is in his ability to personalize the impact of AIDS, as a barometer of an ethically pathological America. Not in the sense that some men were making love to each other, or frantically copulating, but that our hysterically heterocenterist society forced them into hiding. Villified them. Instead of addressing AIDS solely as metaphor or politics, he pulls us into attachments that emotionally involve us too, and walks us through the consequences. By weaving in gobs of often wry humor, he avoids pity, maybe even tragedy. Absurd, comical scenes have somber subtext. Poor Prior isn’t thrilled when a glorious angel appears. He’s terrified. His wrenching pain is treated as a stepping stone to his role in some kind of profound watershed for America’s future. But we won’t find out till part two.

Cheryl Denson has directed a sublime, crisp, infinitely intriguing and enjoyable show. The cast is skillful, agile and resonant with genuine emotion. They have captured a very difficult tone, flippant and grave. Sorrowful and resigned but nonchalant. The stony, monolothic, minimal sets by H. Bart McGeehon are appropriate and powerfully nuanced. Special kudos to Emily Scott Banks who handles her descent with poise and (forgive me) grace. (Toxic Avenger the Musical)

10. Cara Mia Theatre: Crystal City 1969

Inspiring. Enraging. Heartbreaking. Exhilarating. Cara Mia’s current show: Crystal City 1969 will catch you off-guard. I confess that I was unfamiliar with this incident in Crystal City, Texas (unlike Stonewall, Ferguson, Little Rock) where high school students protested blatant, brazen, unconscionable discrimination from teachers and administrators alike. Not that Texas has ever led the way when it came to issues like civil rights, but even for a school operating in the Bible Belt, in 1969, the transgressions of those in authority were particularly egregious. Students were paddled for speaking Spanish, refused equal participation in school activities (though they outnumbered Anglos) shamed, humiliated and verbally abused in the classroom by teachers, punished for protesting or even signing petitions. Some young men were even sent to the front lines of the Vietnam War, made cannon fodder for the sheer audacity of objecting to unfair treatment.

Somewhat similar to The Laramie Project, Crystal City 1969, shows a myriad of characters and situations. The toxic effect of diminishing and degrading ethnicities and races perceived as “the other,” by those in power. We are privy to the home lives of the students, parents, Latinos, Anglos, no one is demonized or canonized. If anything the commonplace occurrence of unchallenged racism and imperialism is made palpable. None of the white people are made to look like The Grand Dragon or Simon Legree, but the gratuitous hostility, the remarks like, “I thought you were one of the good ones,” illustrate the disgusting way a culture indoctrinates its members to seek comfort and validation by subjugating others. Again and again we see individuals ignored, knocked down or eliminated lest they begin to act on their self-esteem. Even the most reasonable requests for decent humanity is met with arrogance and abuse.

Whenever a play seeks to examine the nature of prejudice, civil rights, the countless ways human beings find to justify beating and lynching and exterminating one another (In White America, Bent, The Diary of Anne Frank) the risk is stacking the deck, on one side or the other. Jason might have treated Medea like drek, but he still gets to tell his side of the story. Playwrights David Lozano and Raul Trevino have avoided this entirely. Crystal City 1969 is not distorted or amplified. It tells the story of Latinos in a small, provincial Texas town, where bigotry is so ingrained in Anglo behavior, that it must be fought, without stooping to their level. Cara Mia Theatre and this wonderful cast (and adroit director David Lozano) have crafted a deeply moving, powerful, stirring narrative of the triumph of humanity and spiritual abundance when we genuinely care for and look out for one another. I think Jesus said something like that, didn’t He?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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